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Why Is Stalking Legal?

Ted Rall on

Activists harass White House officials and senators as they eat dinner at restaurants. Another senator was recently stalked into the ladies' room, where her pursuers shouted derision at her stall. Many other politicians have suffered protest demonstrations at their homes.

Now that they're beleaguered, this may be the perfect time to convince lawmakers to act to protect Americans' most personal information: their home address and phone number.

Type your name into a search engine. Odds are, a few of the results will include private companies that reveal your home address or part thereof, your phone number or part thereof, employment and education history, along with information about "known associates" such as your friends and family members. For a fee, these personal search services offer to fill in the gaps with data culled from public records such as those of the Department of Motor Vehicles, marriage records, voter registration rolls and consumer credit reports.

Easy access to mountains of personal data is such a gold mine for identity thieves, stalkers and other predators that women's shelters spend much of their time helping their clients to navigate convoluted state-run programs that allow victims of abuse to replace their home addresses with P.O. boxes in public databases like those run by the DMV.

Trying to disappear from the internet is an uphill battle. Millions of Americans report having been stalked.

It's a murder pandemic: 54% of female homicide victims were killed by former romantic partners who stalked them first, many by using public records searches.

 

You can ask each of these companies to opt out by deleting their listings for you. But the processes are cumbersome and make you reveal more information, such as your current phone number, that could increase your exposure. It's like Whac-a-Mole; every time you get one taken offline, another pops up. And there are a lot: 121 companies registered to comply with a 2019 Vermont law set up to monitor the data brokerage business. Preventing predatory purveyors of personal information from selling your safety shouldn't be a full-time job.

Nor should you have to install a VPN or script-blocker or, as privacy experts advise, avoid posting anything on the web.

Pre-internet, you controlled access to your contact information. If you didn't want strangers to know your digits, you could request that the phone company keep you unlisted from 411 information and the white pages. One too many late-night raids by students wielding toilet paper convinced my mother, a high school teacher, to avail herself of that service. It worked.

The system wasn't perfect. A determined stalker could follow you home. Announcements of home purchases, including the name of the buyer, were listed in local newspapers. But dead-tree publications weren't keyword-searchable from anywhere on the planet. It took considerable effort to track a person to their residence.

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